‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ video: Apes riding horses and more

July 08, 2014 | 6:45 a.m.

At the recent Hero Complex screening of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” director Matt Reeves and stars Andy Serkis and Gary Oldman were on hand for a conversation after the film. Picking up the story 10 years after the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the new film concerns a small band of human survivors stumbling upon a colony of apes whose civilization has grown more sophisticated. After attempting to peacefully coexist, tensions build between the two groups and escalates to all-out war.

Despite being a summer popcorn blockbuster, the film also plays as a strong character drama, with thematic parallels between the humans, including characters played by Oldman, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, and the apes, portrayed by Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer and others using performance-capture technology.

Even when the film gets to the big set-piece sequences, as when the apes unleash an all-out assault on the human compound in what is meant to be the remains of San Francisco, it is with an undercurrent of character work and dramatic intent rare for an action film.

“It’s meant to be a tragedy,” said Reeves. “And that was a challenge, because here’s the moment that supposedly the audience is waiting for, the apes are holding machine guns in each arm and riding horses and all the stuff that the big summer movie is supposed to do, and I wanted you to feel sadly about it, I wanted you to feel it was a nightmare, a fever dream, something terrible.”

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Caesar, the leader of the ape nation, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (right) (in performance capture suit) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a representative of a colony of human survivors, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Jason Clarke in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (20th Century Fox)

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Jason Clarke and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit) in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), the leader of the ape nation, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) ponders his next move as he faces a threat posed by a colony of humans in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

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Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is surrounded by apes as he tries to make peace in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

Just how unusual it was to be making a movie aiming to be fun and serious at the same time was not lost on Reeves.

“I kept pinching myself they were letting us make this movie,” he added.

The image of an ape with a gun on horseback goes back to the original series of “Apes” movies, and has become such a primal touchstone for the franchise that it is used on the main poster art for “Dawn.”

“It is interesting, isn’t it, animals using other animals as transport. It’s a bizarre concept,” noted Serkis. “I remember talking about it. It’s a very strange thing. What other situation in life do you see that happen?”

“I have to say,” Serkis continued, “the horses that we had on set … didn’t really like us being apes. The actors rehearsed with their horses prior to shooting while acting as apes to train the animals in advance, so when we turned up on set they weren’t going to get freaked out. And when we turned up on set they were freaked out.”

Serkis went on to note that because it turned out to be difficult for the actors playing apes to ride real horses, the production had to improvise an alternative. He then handed the story to Oldman, who explained that in the scene when he, as leader of the humans, first encounters the ape horde, rather than actual horses Serkis and his fellow ape actors simply sat on top of ladders to get the right height and horses were digitally added later.

“So that was my image of first working with Andy Serkis,” said Gary Oldman. “A man in a unitard with a camera strapped to his head on a stepladder, pretending he’s an ape.”

– Mark Olsen | @IndieFocus | @LATHeroComplex

[For the record, 10:50 a.m. July 8: A previous version of this post misspelled actor Jason Clarke’s last name as Clark.]

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